Wine has played a part in Greece’s culture from as early as the 8th Century BC according to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Wine is also a part of Greek mythology by way of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who appears in legends from every part of Greece.
Due to Greece’s turbulent history, dating all the way back to the 4th Century, it has always fallen well behind Italy in the development of wine. This has impacted its influence in the modern wine world. However, since the late 20th Century, Greece has been revitalized by motivated wine producers who are focusing on quality and are adopting modern wine making techniques.
Today Greek wine combines the traditional with the modern. Native Greek grape varieties such as Assyrtico, Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro are found alongside such international varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Greek wines are truly European in provenance, style and quality. They are a part of the premier European wine league and in belong to the same class as Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Austrian wines.
The basis of Greek wine production is the family-owned boutique winery. All vineyard practices, from planting to harvesting are carried out entirely by hand. The manual work done in Greek vineyards allows for greater attention to detail and the ability to select only the best grapes.
There is a rich heritage of vine growers and winemakers. However, the use of innovative practises and cutting-edge technology embellishes and highlight the arduous work carried out in the vineyard.
Like the rest of Europe, Greece’s grape growing areas are now organized into appellations. Regions of historical significance were among the first to be granted appellation status. Conditions were imposed on the grape varieties to be used in the making of wine and often on the altitudes required for cultivation.
The Onomasia Proelefseos Anoteras Piotitos (OPAP) and Onomasia Proelefseos Eleghomeni (OPE) are the two principal designations for the quality of wine in Greece. They cover dry and sweet wines respectively.
There are over 300 varietals of grapes grown in Greece, ranging from the traditional to standard European varieties to the most rare that are specific to Greece. Included in this vast number of varieties are the four traditional ones. They are:
Assyrtiko is a rare white grape that originated from Santorini (Assyrtiko-Santorini) but now can be found throughout Greece. In terms of quality it is one of the most important native varietals. It is used to produce mainly dry white wines, some of which are aged in oak. However, a number of sweet wines are made from sun dried grapes.
Assyrtiko is made for people looking for unconventional, intense styles of whites that have texture and density. It pairs exceptionally well with grilled fish and seafood. All Assyrtiko wines, can age well for five or even ten years, sometimes significantly more.
The Moschofilero grape is reddish or grayish in colour but is almost exclusively used to create dry whites and some sparkling wines. It is also used to create rose wines and is also often blended with other grapes.
Agiorgitiko is a red grape variety that has freshness and intensity of aromas and flavours. It is used to produce a large range of styles, from refreshing rosés to concentrated sweet wines. However, the most common styles are as a young, unoaked wine or as a matured in oak for at least a year.
A young Agiorgitiko is a wine with a moderately deep purple red colour, intense aromas of fresh red fruits, medium acidity and soft tannins. The oak aged examples are deep in colour, while the nose suggests concentrated and complex aromas of red fruits. It is a variety that can produce other styles of wine, such as rosé or dessert wine. It is sometimes referred to being like the Italian Sangiovese grapes, which are the basis of Chianti wine.
Xinomavro grapes are used to create reds, dynamic rosés, aromatic sparkling wines, and even sweet wines. They are also blended in dry wines.
Xinomavro wines are usually for sale when they are at least two years old, having spent a significant proportion of that time in oak. These wines tend to rise to prominence with aging and are bright red in colour, with firm tannins and bright acidity. The bottle aging potential of these wines is excellent.
This wine is an ideal companion to foods with intense and rich flavours such as meat stews, grilled steaks, sausages, game, roasted lamb, coq au vin or even wild mushroom risotto with Parmesan, wine-flavoured cheeses, aged Gouda or Cheddar.
European Grape Varieties
In addition to the unique Greek varietals there are several standard European varieties grown as well. White varietals include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and the reds include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. Because of Greece’s warm Mediterranean climate, varieties such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, or Gamay are not commonly grown in Greece.
One type of wine that is unique to Greece is Retsina. The resinated wine style is said to have developed when pine resin was used as an airtight sealant for wine storage vessels. Today Retsina is made by choice rather than necessity, through the addition of pine resin during fermentation.
So far the 21st Century has been a tumultuous as all the past centuries for Greece. The ‘Greek Tragedy’ continues with political instability and an enormous debt crisis that has threatening the entire economy of Europe. However, despite the continual turmoil, Greece produces both unique and excellent wines.
If you have never tried Greek wine or have not had any in recent memory, then it is time for a new discovery. To fully embrace the Greek experience I suggest ignoring the common European varietals and try one or more of the traditional Greek wines.